BURLINGTON, Vt. — The benefit of green spaces for mental health has a diversity issue, according to researchers at the University of Vermont.
Their report finds over 95 percent of the studies on this topic take place in North America, Europe, and Asia. Trials in Latin America, Africa, and Oceania are largely absent. Fewer than four percent have taken place in less affluent countries such as India; with none occurring in low-income nations.
The team contends that all of the data on forests and parks may only boost the well-being of the people living in more affluent nations — who are predominately Caucasian or wealthy.
“This field has great potential to address urgent issues—from the global mental health crisis to sustainability efforts worldwide—but to do so, we must better reflect the diversity of world’s populations, cultures and values,” says lead author Dr. Carlos Gallegos-Riofrio in a media release.
Are mental health studies too ‘WEIRD’?
An analysis of 174 peer-reviewed papers from 2010 to 2020 found study participants were overwhelmingly white. BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) communities were strongly under-represented in reports on mental health and green spaces. The narrow sample of humanity makes it difficult to credibly make universal scientific claims, according to the team.
Despite the new findings, previous studies say being close to nature boosts happiness and combats depression and anxiety. The phenomenon has been popularized by books like “Your Brain on Nature” and “The Nature Fix,” which champion the great outdoors.
Dr. Gallegos-Riofrio credits a landmark 2012 review of human psychology and behavioral science for inspiring him. Joseph Henrich, a Harvard professor of human evolutionary biology, highlighted the problem of drawing universal conclusions from experiments using college students.
He famously dubbed such individuals WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic). Most people live in non-WEIRD nations, with different styles of perception and reasoning and values. Prof. Henrich argued WEIRD studies were not credible.
A ‘wake-up call’ for global research
Dr. Gallegos-Riofrio and colleagues applied his lens but dug deeper into the question of ethnicity for nature’s mental health benefits. They were surprised by the level of bias. Sample populations were not only primarily from WEIRD countries, but also overwhelmingly white.
Moreover, 62 percent of the studies did not report participants’ ethnicity at all. Some used anonymized data sources, such as Twitter. Only one occurred in Africa (South Africa) and one in South America (Colombia). Neither tracked ethnicity. Just one focused on North America’s indigenous peoples.
“We hope our study is a wake-up call for this promising field that sparks positive change,” says co-author Rachelle Gould of UVM’s Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources and the Gund Institute for Environment.
“A more inclusive and diverse field that embraces the research needs of the global community—and the full spectrum of ways that humans interact with the non-human world—will ultimately be more impactful.”
The rest of the planet views the world differently
The researchers also found many studies conceptualized the human-nature relationship in individualistic terms. Reciprocity, responsibility, and kinship are more common in non-Western cultures, study authors say.
Recommendations include greater diversity of participants and increased collaboration along with improved demographic tracking. The team adds there should also be an enhanced focus on policy needs for impoverished populations, improved training in research, and more emphasis on equity and justice.
The study also highlights diversifying environmental science, with better support for students from diverse backgrounds. Research shows BIPOC scholars are underrepresented in U.S. environmental institutions and environmental concerns of their communities are being ignored.
“We need all cultures working together to tackle the global emergencies we face,” says Amaya Carrasco, a co-author and UVM graduate student.
“That requires understanding what’s universal about the human-nature relationship, and what is culturally specific. Those insights are critical to driving social change, and require research to be more inclusive. We need all hands on deck.”
The findings appear in the journal Current Research in Environmental Sustainability.
South West News Service writer Mark Waghorn contributed to this report.